Holmdel Balances the Old with the New

October 16, 2018
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The Bell Works building sits beside a peaceful man-made lake in the middle of Holmdel. Photo by Rick Geffken

By Rick Geffken |

HOLMDEL – Out-of-town music lovers may be more familiar with the PNC Bank Arts Center along the Garden State Parkway, but locals have no doubt the most prominent building in a town rich in history is the rechristened Bell Works monolith. The huge reflective glass icon – described in “Architectural Forum” magazine as “The Biggest Mirror Ever” – has its own unique history in this once mostly bucolic area.

Opened as the Bell Labs complex in 1962 on Crawfords Corner Road, it was designed by world-renowned Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen, who died the year before his dream building was completed. Largely due to the recent remodeling and reuse of this 472-acre property, Mayor Tom Critelli said, “Holmdel is becoming a magnet for tech companies wanting to move into Monmouth County, as well as for new residents looking for an exciting country atmosphere close to the Jersey Shore.”

Both sides of the entry road leading to the Bell Works building are flanked by 185 age-restricted homes for adults 55 and older, constructed by Toll Brothers home builders. Another 40 estate homes were recently put up along nearby Roberts Road.

Holmdel takes pride in preserving its heritage as a farming community. Old homes which date to the 18th and 19th centuries are scattered all over town, amidst modern and larger residences. Perhaps the most visited of the old homes is Longstreet Farm, a virtual neighbor to the new Bell Works. The 9-acre farm on Longstreet Road recreates 1890’s agricultural life when Holmdel was still a part of greater Middletown.

his map shows a part of Middletown half a dozen years before a portion became the Township of Holmdel. Note the many Dutch names like Hendrickson, Longstreet and Conover, and even a section called “Holland.” Map courtesy Monmouth County Archives

The Holmes-Hendrickson House, moved just down the street from Longstreet Farm in 1959, was actually once on the property Bell Labs eventually purchased. Built in 1754 by William Holmes, the house, on 250 acres, wound up in the hands of his cousins, the Hendricksons, who owned “some of the best farming lands in Monmouth County…well stocked with cattle, sheep, and swine,” according to early reports.

The Holmdel Historical Society is restoring Old Saint Catherine’s Roman Catholic Church located on Stillwell Road. This image was taken after the group sandblasted its façade last fall. Photo courtesy Holmdel Historical Society

Many in the Holmes family, originally from Manchester, England, lived in the Pleasant Valley area of Middletown as far back as early 1700s. They lent their name to the community. Or did they? Others have suggested the name derives from the Dutch language words “holm” and “del,” (“pleasant valley”) because these Hollander immigrants farmed land throughout the area. Likely the name has antecedents in both origin tales. The New Jersey Legislature formed Holmdel Township with an official act Feb. 23, 1857.

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Other historical sites in Holmdel include the 1699 Kouwenhoven House on Schanck Road. The Dutch family name evolved over time to Covenhoven and Conover. Schanck, also Dutch, is sometimes seen as Schenck or Schenk, derived from schenken (“to pour out or serve”) and refers to a cup-bearer or wine server, maybe even a tavern keeper.

A 1939 image of Holmdel’s Couwenhoven House on Schanck Road. Now over 315-years-old, the house’s current owners use an alternate spelling: Kouwenhoven. Over time, other variations included Covenhoven and Conover. Photo courtesy Library of Congress

The Holmdel Historical Society is restoring Old St. Catharine’s Church, a 137-year-old abandoned house of worship. President Peter Maneri and treasurer Rhonda Beck-Edwards restarted the moribund society and began restoring the long-neglected church in October 2016. Maneri reports that when the group sandblasted the church last fall they uncovered the original cedar siding, so they “decided not to paint it again and are looking to apply a clear-coating to it which will help its appearance.” The group is always looking for new members.
Forty years ago, when singer/songwriter Bruce Springsteen was living in an 1850 Holmdel farmhouse, he wrote and recorded “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” presumably not about this beautiful community. He, too, has Dutch heritage.

The Bell Works building sits beside a peaceful man-made lake in the middle of Holmdel. Photo by Rick Geffken

This year’s Archives and History Day event will feature more details about some of Holmdel’s historic homes in its exhibition catalog, Buildings in Monmouth, Stories & Styles. The event runs from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Oct. 13 at the Manalapan headquarters branch of the Monmouth County Library, 125 Symmes Road, Manalapan. It is free to the public.

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Critelli is proud of the new 18,000-square-foot Holmdel Library and Learning Center now located inside Bell Works. “It replaces the cramped old facility in the basement of Town Hall on Crawfords Corner Road,” he said. “We’re converting the old library into additional municipal offices, which should be completed by the end of 2018.”

There is a lot going on at the formerly vacant complex, with new companies moving in, a new food hall concept opening up and a conference center in the works. The site has become a gathering place for big special events and casual coffee meet-ups. “It’s a pretty exciting time now in Holmdel,” Critelli said.

This article was first published in the Oct. 11-18, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times in the special Holmdel section

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